Organized Labor Has More in Store for Arkansas

Organized labor pulled down a surprisingly good result in Arkansas on Tuesday night, and it's prepared to keep the good times rolling for its chosen candidate, Lt. Gov Bill Halter, as he heads toward a run-off with Sen. Blanche Lincoln.

Labor has spent at least $4.5 million to back Halter -- or, just as accurately, to oppose Lincoln. With Lincoln's poll numbers sagging over the past year, labor encouraged Halter to challenge her. Lincoln had frustrated organized labor for years by waffling on the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill that would make it easier for workers to form unions. (It was formerly labor's top legislative goal -- over and above health care -- though it's not moving anywhere at the moment.)

After labor poured those millions into independent expenditures, airing ads and sending direct mail on Halter's behalf, Halter still wasn't supposed to come close to Lincoln on Tuesday night. In the last polls before the primary, he trailed by nine percentage points.

But the unexpected happened: Halter forced a June 8 run-off.

The lieutenant governor nearly tied the incumbent, trailing 42.5% to 44.3%, and with neither candidate garnering 50%, a June run-off was mandated. Halter got a lot of help from the third candidate in the race, D.C. Morrison, who managed to rake in a higher-than-expected 13% of the vote.

So labor has three weeks to push Halter over the edge.

"We'll continue to look at the most effective ways to communicate with the public, focusing on either undecideds or weaker supporters, as well as supporters of Morrison," said John Youngdahl, political director of the Service Employees International Union, which spent $1.5 million in the state already.

Before Tuesday's result, it looked as if unions wouldn't get much for the millions they put in. Increased credibility, in showing they're willing to cause trouble for an incumbent who won't vote their way, was how a loss in Arkansas was being spun, as a Lincoln win appeared destined.

Now Halter has some momentum.

"Some supporters of Lincoln...I think probably voted for her because they thought she was going to win," Youngdahl said. Now, Halter looks like he has a shot -- which wasn't the case yesterday -- giving his supporters added incentive to turn out.

Labor won't say how much it's prepared to spend in preparation for the run-off, but political officials will say they're planning to continue to devote resources to the contest. There will be new ads, Youndgahl said, be he doesn't know yet what kind or how many.

"There were several million dollars spend in independent expenditures by a number of the unions, and I have every reason to believe that those unions will continue to stay together and want to continue for the next three weeks," said Karen Ackerman, political director of the AFL-CIO, on a conference call with reporters Wednesday. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates spent $3 million backing Halter through Tuesday night.

On top of independent expenditures, labor will focus, as it always does, on turning out union members. That's their bread and butter, with fewer financing restrictions applying to member contact. SEIU has 1,000 members in the state; AFL-CIO says its affiliate unions have about 20,000 members.

With a less than overwhelming total of union members in Arkansas, labor has another avenue for turning out working-class Democratic votes: Working America, the activist arm of the AFL-CIO.

Founded six years ago, Working America recruits non-union members to sign up, then stays in contact with them. It's a way for the AFL-CIO, essentially, to stay in touch with working-class people about political campaigns and issues.

Working America has 20,000 members in the state, on top of AFL-CIO's affiliate members. It says its members made 200,000 phone calls in Arkansas leading up to Tuesday night, contacting 90,000 people and canvassing in 17 counties on top of sending 1.75 million pieces of mail. For the run-off, Working America says it will make 90,000 calls, knock on 20,000 doors, and send 700,000 pieces of mail.

So that's the spending and turnout machine labor is working with, as it targets those leaning voters and tries to make Halter the next U.S. senator. If the unions succeed, they will have gained more than credibility: they will have gained a friendly Senate vote from a conservative Democratic state, and, with it, proof that their millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of phone calls have the power to unseat an incumbent.